A professor told me that when he and his wife were global workers in South Africa, local men reproved him for allowing his wife to get so thin. Her size reflected poorly on his willingness and ability to provide enough food for her. She made him look bad. But his American wife had no intention of giving up her hard-won slim figure in order to “fit” in her temporary home if it meant she would then be too large to “fit” in the United States.
This woman’s predicament illustrates much of what I have learned from the mountain of recent research on how humans respond to physical appearance. Studies in thirty-seven cultures around the world reveal first and foremost that how women look is a big deal everywhere. It’s tempting to think that the American media invented our obsession with beauty, but it’s not so. A Middle Eastern sheepherder named Jacob preferred pretty Rachel over plain Leah more than 3500 years ago (Genesis 29), and not much has changed since then. Men around the world say that a woman’s appearance is a major factor in her appeal as a wife.
Second, the standard of what is considered beautiful in a woman is remarkably consistent around the world. The standard includes signs of youth, health, and high estrogen: clear, smooth skin; large, bright eyes; small jaws; thick hair; a ratio of waist measurement to hip measurement that approximates 0.7 (hourglass curves); and especially symmetry. Symmetry means that a person’s eyes, ears, cheekbones, shoulders, breasts, and even hands and feet match in size and shape. Biologists say asymmetry in animals is a sign of difficulties in the womb, poor nutrition, or a neurological problem, so symmetry is an excellent signal of an animal’s health. If God designed humans to be fruitful and multiply, it’s not surprising that he wired human males with a rough instinct for mates who show the highest statistical probability of bearing many healthy children.
But third, when beauty standards vary from culture to culture, they do so according to features that represent high status in that culture. In America, where food is plentiful but time is scarce and work mainly involves sitting, slimness is a sign that a woman can afford to exercise and to buy expensive lean meats and vegetables, rather than cheap starches and fatty meats. Not surprisingly, size 4 equals status. However, in Africa, where food is scarce and work mainly involves physical labor, plumpness is evidence that a woman’s husband or father can afford to feed her and let her sit around.
Notice that slimness or plumpness is a status symbol not just for a woman, but for the man to whom she is attached. So beauty’s appeal to men is not just as a sign of fertility, but also as a way of proving men’s rank in the male pecking order.
It’s no wonder we women feel so concerned to be beautiful if our value as wives (if not in our enlightened husbands’ eyes, then in the eyes of other women and men) is so much measured by it. But I believe there are even deeper reasons why women long to be seen and treated as beautiful. God made us in his image, and most theologians throughout history have recognized that we carry this image in our bodies as well as our souls. We were made to be like Eve, unblemished by age or disease-something inside us knows that this fallen world with its wrinkles and mastectomies is not our rightful home.
The Song of Songs depicts what we were made for: to be seen as exquisite in the eyes of a loving beholder. The poet lingers over the bride’s hair, teeth, temples, eyes, cheeks, neck, lips, and breasts. “Your lips are like a scarlet ribbon; your mouth is lovely. . . .” We may read the Song as an allegory of Christ’s love for the church, but would God describe his bride in such blatantly physical and erotic terms if he did not rejoice in the physical beauty of his handiwork? To say that the bride’s beauty is “only” a symbol is like saying marriage is “only” a symbol of the relationship between Christ and the church. Surely marriage, like beauty, is a deep human longing partly because it points us beyond itself.
Every child wants to be beautiful in the eyes of her parents. If beauty is in the eyes of the loving beholder, then the child becomes beautiful through the gaze of those who love her. The opposite is also true: an unloved child believes herself ugly, and she grows up without the warm, bright face of one who knows herself loved.
We have, then, a God-given longing to be seen as beautiful. But like any intense human longing, this one is easily twisted into idolatry. Children watch Cinderella, and instead of learning, “I am beautiful to those who love me, especially to God,” they learn, “I must make myself beautiful in order to be loved.” At four they beg for Rollerblade Barbie; at ten they are bombarded by ads for make-up and diet aids; at twelve they are called Thunder Thighs at school and resolve to go on a diet. The cosmetic industry takes in $33 billion annually around the world; the diet industry makes $30 billion in the U.S. alone. The Amazon jungle is now criss-crossed by a cadre of Avon ladies, who make more money selling powder than their husbands make as laborers. Aspiring actresses in Los Angeles moonlight as call girls in order to afford the breast implants and expensive clothes they must have in order to compete in Hollywood.
How can we as women help each other resist beauty idolatry while affirming the good, human longing for beauty?
First, we can listen to the whole range of God’s words on beauty in the Bible, from celebration in the Song of Songs to warning in Isaiah to compassion in the stories of Leah and of David’s daughter Tamar. Second, we can talk to each other about our experiences with appearance, from what we learned as children, to what we went through as teenagers, to what we feel now in our thirties, fifties, or seventies. As we hear each others’ stories, we can “Rejoice with those who rejoice; [and] mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15). To have the genetics for a body shape that one’s culture scorns is painful; to lose a breast is a deep sorrow. We can discuss the messages we get from other women, from men, and from the cultures we live in about how we should look. We can wrestle together over decisions we face about the money, time, or emotional energy we spend on our appearance.
We can also resolve to treat each other as beautiful. In my own experience, time alone with God was essential to my process of coming to believe in my beauty, but equally essential were my brothers and sisters in Christ. Over a span of several years in my early thirties, at an age when many women believe their beauty is beginning to fade, some of God’s people demonstrated their enjoyment of me as a woman to such a degree that it changed my appearance. I gained the bright eyes, warm smile, and glow of a woman grateful for the body God gave me. I stopped wanting to be invisible, or to be just a mind without a body. I let people draw out of me the image of God in both body and soul.
We can understand and live with the potent human instincts that attract us to women with symmetrical features, hourglass curves, and whatever features have high status in a given society, but we can learn to live beyond instinct. For while signs of youth, health, and high estrogen are good statistical predictors of fertility in our species as a whole, that standard breaks down when applied to individuals. Any one random plain Jane may carry far more babies to term than her gorgeous, curvaceous sister. That is exactly what happened in the case of Leah and Rachel. Neither we nor the men we live with need to be prisoners of instinct. We can manifest the image of God at forty, and at sixty “with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
Beauty matters. Studies have found that 48% of American women felt “wholesale displeasure” about their bodies. That is, about half utterly detested their looks, while many more merely disliked their busts or thighs. This self- hatred continues to spiral up. The belief that one is ugly is a spiritual barometer. These people don’t need to be told they are vain. They need to be loved, body and soul, until they can look in the mirror and see the image of God. May we be true and loving mirrors for one another.
This article is a classic originally published in our early print magazines.